How and when to use French articles

How and when to use French articles

by Louise Richard
October 28, 2021

Bonjour tout le monde ! Comment ça va ?

Today, we’re talking about articles.

In French, nouns are always preceded by an article or a determiner. Articles and nouns form a unit; they must always agree with the noun, just like adjectives do. You will never find a masculine article with a feminine noun. For each type of article, there will be a minimum of three (sometimes four) forms. Don’t worry, they are not difficult to remember and I’m sure you’ve encountered them before in simple sentences!
The article indicates the gender of the noun (masculine or feminine) and its quantity (singular or plural). There are three types of articles that we will explain here: indefinite articles, definite articles, and partitive articles.
Keep reading to find out when to use definite and indefinite articles and why. Even though they are such small words, they hold important meaning.

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Indefinite articles in French

The indefinite articles (articles indéfinis) are:

  • un”, used in front of a masculine singular noun
  • une”, used in front of a feminine singular noun
  • des”, used in front of a plural noun, whatever gender the noun is

Un” and “une” would translate to “a” in English. And “des” is similar to the English “some”.

Let’s see how these articles can influence nouns:

masculine singularun amia friend
feminine singularune amiea friend
masculine pluraldes amissome friends
feminine pluraldes amiessome friends

As you can see, in the singular form, you have to make sure the article is adjusted to the gender of the noun. In the plural form, it will always be “des”.

Let’s have a look at some sentences now:

Un invité est arrivé: A guest has arrived

Je mange une glace: I eat an ice cream

Il achète des vestes: He is buying some jackets

Definite articles in French

The definite articles (articles définis) in French are:

  • le”, used in front of a masculine singular noun
  • la”, used in front of a feminine singular noun
  • l’”, used in front of a singular noun starting with a vowel or a silent h, whatever its gender is
  •  “les”, used in front of a plural noun, whatever its gender is
masculine singularle singethe monkey
feminine singularla girafethe giraffe
vowel singularsilent h singularl’otariethe sea lion
l’herbethe grass
pluralles tigresthe tigers

Definite articles would translate to “the” in English.

They are used:

  • to talk about a specific person or thing. Example : C’est le livre de Marie (It is Marie’s book).
  • to refer to a person or thing that has already been mentioned or is already known.
    Example: Elle mange le gâteau (She eats the cake).
  • after the verbs aimer, adorer, préférer and détester. Example: Il adore le bleu (He loves the color blue).

Fun fact! All the colors in French are masculine so you will say le bleu, le rouge or le vert.

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Partitive articles in French

The partitive articles (articles partitifs) are used to talk about an undetermined amount of something. It is formed with the preposition “de” and an article.

masculine singularde + ledu
feminine singularde + lade la
pluralde + lesdes

We use them:

  • with uncountable nouns. Example: je mange du gâteau (I eat some cake).
  • to talk about sports and musical instruments with the verb faire. Example: Je fais du foot (I play football).

French articles in a nutshell

Now, you know all about indefinite, definite and partitive articles! The biggest difference between indefinite and definite articles is how you refer to something. Is it something specific? (definite articles!) Or something more general? (indefinite articles!).

To practice using partitive articles, try to use them when talking about food (not so hard, right?). You are always one step away from eating the whole cake (le gâteau) or just some of it (du gâteau)!

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Louise is a French teacher and courses director. She lives in Oxford, UK and loves to bike around this lovely city. She is a keen traveller (she lived in Europe, the United States and Australia) and loves meeting people from all over the world. She is also passionate about how learning a new language opens doors to so many different cultures, and this is what she wants to share with her students. She comes from Burgundy-Franche-Comté, a region in the East of France, and loves everything there is about it, from the Macvin to the cancoillotte! If you want to know more, check out her LinkedIn profile.